June 20-27, 2022
Belated Happy International Day of Yoga (Summer Solstice, June 21). It seems appropriate to be working on this particular blog at this time in the calendar.
Some of you may have noticed that I stopped saying, “Namaste” at the end of my classes a few months ago. Only one person asked about it, which surprised me a little. Maybe others wondered but didn’t ask. After much contemplation, I decided to actually mention it, though I have been hesitant, mostly wanting to avoid pissing anyone off, but here it is.
Back in January, Nikki showed me a long NPR article on “cultural appropriation” in Western yoga, which started with a bunch of complaints from Indians—including that writer—about the use of the word “namaste” in yoga classes and in the world and about the commercialization of it and other Indian things in general. Think: yoga mats with “Namaste” on them, or shirts, or business names; some even took issue with “namaste” jokes.
The article was largely just sensational and trying to get views. However I did learn that in the larger Indian culture, apparently “namaste” is used mostly by Hindi speaking people as a way simply to say “hello,” sometimes specifically to an elder or to someone you don’t know well. In that case, using it at the end of class seemed weird at best.
The article also voiced the complaint that in Western yoga circles, the meaning is so overblown. A translation that I had read in a yoga studio long ago was, “I bow to that place in you where when you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are One.” I love that sentiment that contains the highest teachings of Yoga. The more common and simple translation, however, is, “the Light in me bows to the Light in you.” Though those meanings have nothing to do with how the word is currently used in Indian culture, they are consistent with the original roots of the word in Sanskrit. It may even be that in some Indian Yoga circles, “namaste” is used to mean just we had thought it meant.
After reading that article, Scott Campbell, a long time friend and student and fellow Yoga teacher, and I started having a conversation about using “namaste” in our classes. He wondered where it came from and why it started being used at the end of Yoga classes in the first place. We still have not found out for sure, but we assume that it came from our teachers who were trained either in India or by Indians.
That’s how Yoga came to the U.S in a big way. Especially from the hippie days, Westerners were going to India to learn Yoga from Indians. Also Indians came to the West to teach either on their own initiative or invited and hosted by their students. The Indian teachers in all cases joyously taught their Western students and then later gave them permission to teach.
Some of us teaching Yoga are old enough and have been teaching long enough that our many or all of our teachers were at least “second generation,” meaning they, themselves, had been taught directly by Indians. Now, many years later, the majority of American yoga teachers have no direct connection to India or Indian teachers. In some cases they may even have no understanding or respect for India, Indian culture and religion and Yoga’s place in it.
Though those are extreme cases, they do exist. In the U.S., it’s not uncommon for “yoga” teachers to have a complete disregard for the whole package of Yoga while making a conscious choice to keep only the asana part of the practice and to chuck the rest. There are also plenty of yoga studios whose primary aim is financial profit. And thus, for some Indians, there is a rightful reaction against what is perceived as the “cultural appropriation” as well as for the obvious commercialization in Yoga.
The only thing I was personally and directly ever taught about “namaste” was from an “actual” Indian, a high-level Yogi who is also one of my teachers and mentors and an elder brother on the Path. His teaching was very simple, spiritual and profound, and worthy of deep reflection. He told me that he took “namaste” to mean “na=not, ma=me, ste=you:” “not me, you.” He expressed no problem with it being used in Yoga classes. The philosophy that is encapsulated in his translation is the essence of “renunciation” and morality, according to Swami Vivekananda, the Indian monk attributed with bringing Yoga to the West in 1893 at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. (He’s the brass “guy” in the south window at the Shala.)
Though I had been taught so differently from what the article said and though the article I read did not in any way include a variety of viewpoints, I did reflect on how I came to use “namaste” in classes. I was first trained and taught Yoga in the Kripalu Yoga tradition, where we ended classes with “Jai Bhagwan!” meaning basically, “Victory to God! That phrase came from Amrit Desai, the Indian Guru there at the time. That phrase meant something to me, and I felt a connection with it. When I moved to NC, there were no other teachers around from that tradition, and everyone used “Namaste” to end their classes, so I went along with that. It seemed more “universal” to Yoga as a “brand” rather than to a specific “brand” of Yoga. “Namaste” meant something to me, but not like “Jai Bhagwan!” did. It was also an important nod to India and the origins of the practice.
No Indian over the past 26 years ever complained about it to me, and all the Indians I remember in classes have only supported and appreciated me for being true to the “Bigger Tradition.” However, given that some Indians in the world were apparently upset about “Namaste” being used and commercialized, I decided to drop it from my classes. It wasn’t that important to me and wasn’t important to what I am trying to convey in my sharing of Yoga.
At the end of class, we sing “Lokaha Samastaha Sukhino Bhavantu. OM Shanti Shanti Shanti,” meaning “May all the beings in all the worlds be happy, content and peaceful”. In that important Sanskrit prayer, we have both our acknowledgment of India as well as the uniting of our energies in the most important prayer we can offer into the world. (You can read more about that prayer here and here.)
After that, I have been ending lately by saying, “I bow to the Consciousness and Love that you are. I bow to your True Self.” This sentiment really means something to me and is a reinforcement of the readings in classes. It is also a translation of the phrase with which Amma, my Teacher, begins every one of her public talks. I think this phrase conveys what “Namaste” was hoping to mean as well: “I bow to that place in you where when you are in that place in you and I am in that place in me, we are One.”
In the end, what the whole “namaste question” brought up for me was a deeper searching of what I’m about and what I’m wanting to convey. Basically it encouraged me to be more honest with myself, to come from a deeper and more genuine place, and to move away from “yoga jargon,” which I already try to avoid. (And I’m sure some Indians wouldn’t like that either.)
For students, I’ll just encourage, if you want to keep using “Namaste” and it’s coming from a place of respect and it means something to you, then please keep using it. I stopped because that was right for me! Or if you are curious about or intrigued by what I’ve written above, just feel in your heart, look deeper and find what’s most appropriate for you to end your Yoga class time with. Maybe there’s something even better for you to say or feel than “namaste” was. And feel free to chat with me more about all this if you feel inclined. I bow to the Consciousness and Love that you are. I bow to your True Self.